In our wheat-heavy modern American food industry, gluten is nearly ubiquitous. The protein functions in various ways across products ranging from breadings and batters to binding ingredients in processed meats to snack-food seasonings—and more. Gluten is so useful and pervasive that, indeed, removing it from processed foods and finding suitable substitutes is “very difficult,” says food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue LLC Kantha Shelke, PhD. In breadings and batters gluten provides cohesiveness. In hot dogs and imitation fish and shellfish, it binds ingredients. In pizza crust, gluten contributes texture, and in salad dressings and seasoned snack foods, it serves as flavoring. The list of gluten’s attributes and useful characteristics goes on and on, as do food manufacturers’ recent efforts to overcome their reliance on gluten in order to meet steadily rising consumer demand for gluten-free products.
Among the manufacturing challenges these food companies face in creating gluten-free products is a generally poor understanding of gluten functionality, for starters, as well as the receipt of conflicting ingredient information from suppliers—for example, Shelke says, the differences in and significance of using starches versus precooked starches.
These companies also must address the implications of listing certain ingredients, such as hydrocolloids, on their product labels, and they must consider that the proliferation of certain popular gluten-free ingredients, such as rice and potato, could potentially lead to consumer intolerances from these ingredients’ overuse.
When product developers and formulators switch out wheat-based ingredients for other choices to make gluten-free versions of “consumer favorites,” Shelke warns, the result is “often sub-par.” She advises product developers to first study the role of the gluten-based ingredient from functional, nutritional, aesthetic, and economic points of view, as well as how other ingredients interact with it. She then suggests addressing each aspect of the gluten-based ingredient individually “and in concert with the other ingredients” before proceeding.
Food science is making steady progress in the gluten-free realm, but challenges remain. Click to see.
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